Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Our faith is unabashedly public

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

I once heard a senior person condescendingly addressed a group of young people by giving them his two cents worth of advice, “Don’t try to be so holy!” I guess it would be far too generous to accord such words any value, even if it were mere pittance. But in all fairness, what he may have wanted to say was that they shouldn’t be flaunting their piety. Did not the Lord Himself caution us to not parade our good deeds among men? Although, the ‘good deed’ may always be a good thing, showing off as far as that is concerned, is always a bad thing. Nonetheless, the danger is that the advice risked reinforcing modern culture’s penchant for relegating faith to the private sphere. In a world, where the “coming out” of the closet of every sordid lifestyle is celebrated, faith remains and should remain locked up in the darkest dungeons. In an age of political correctness, the goal is not to ‘offend’ others even if it means compromising or hiding one’s deepest convictions.

Detrich Bonheoffer in The Cost of Discipleship writes about this idea of the privatisation of faith when he says that flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. In other words, when Christians think they can just sort of fade into the background, when the Church ceases to be a prophetic sign confronting the evils of every era with her life-giving message, when all these stop happening, we have literally denied what it means to be followers of Christ. Pope Francis, in his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, reminds us that our Christian faith is unabashedly and unapologetically public. To privatise faith or to hide it is to make a travesty of it. The Church is no secret society. We are meant to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” These metaphors are meant to stir things up. We are meant to make a difference in the world around us rather than simply conform to the values of the culture that surrounds us. Jesus tells us, “Your light must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.” To paraphrase, “Christians must come out!”

The images of salt and light are so rich in meaning, that even an entire day’s talk can’t begin to do them justice. Today, I would just like to focus on the theme of light. In the gospel of St John, Jesus tells us, that “He” is the light of the world. It’s good to remember this. You cannot make yourself the light of the world. You are the light of the world only because of your relationship with Him. It is the light of Christ that shines in us, not some self-created light.

If we are of the light, why would so many choose to remain in the darkness? The answer lies in the effect the light has on us. Many choose to remain in the shadows and in the darkness because the light can be repulsive – it exposes filth and scars. It was this very quality of light that our Lord so vividly described in John 3:19-20, “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” Yet, this very light can affect us in a different manner. Light reveals truth, the beauty of truth. It reveals truth about ourselves. We never see ourselves truly until we see ourselves in the context of Christ. In His light, we come to recognise that we are sinners in need of a Saviour. He is “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,”;  He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

But today, so many Catholics have the tendency to dull the light. Instead of standing out, we choose to blend in, to hide our distinctiveness. Eventually, we confine our faith to the private and personal sphere. When our paradigm is that of a dichotomised, or “sacred/secular” world, we eventually suffer from a certain moral bi-polarity, which is when we don’t apply the same values to one as to the other. We behave ‘churchy’ in the church setting and ‘worldly’ when we are out there in the world. We don't seek to demonstrate the contrast between the light of our faith and the world’s darkness because we don’t see the necessity. We simply resign ourselves to an amphibious existence. We eventually learn to blend in to the darkness rather than to shine. We can even buy into the lie that in order to succeed, in order to survive we must do so, and since our lives ‘outside’ the confines of the Church is “secular” and not holy, it won’t make a difference at all.

This, of course, is the exact opposite of the truth. The truth is that we let our light shine the brightest when the contrast is the greatest. In order for light to be noticed, it must shine in darkness. Remember the caution of Our Lord, “No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lampstand where it shines for everyone in the house.” None of you may have the opportunity to preach a stirring sermon from the pulpit, but, you get to do it every day in the ordinary circumstances of life. The marketplace, your workplace, your school or college, your neighbourhood, and every social or public engagement provide you the greatest opportunities to shine, that is, to demonstrate the difference it makes in having Christ in your lives. My homilies pale in comparison!

Being a “light of the world” can happen in so many simple and varied ways.
When we respond in kindness to our enemies, our light shines.
When we give a person who has erred another chance when the world wouldn't, our light shines.
When we tell others that the most important thing in our lives is Jesus Christ and not success, and then live so they can see that it’s true, our light shines.
When we risk looking the fool for Christ where others dare not, our light shines.
When we wish genuine good to all men, with the greatest good being their salvation, our light shines.
When we stand up for the Truth even though deception and silence seem so much more profitable, our light shines.

Coming back to the objection that we heard at the beginning of this homily about flaunting our faith, when do you tell others about your good deeds and when do you not? Honestly, this is a good question for those who wish to advance in holiness and yet desire to avoid falling into the narcissistic trap of self-aggrandisement. When we are asked to allow our lights to “shine in the sight of men,” people are suppose to notice through your character, actions and lifestyle, and how Christ permeates them, and  not because of your attempts to have them see how “holy” and “great” you are. The former is humility. The latter is prideful and wrong. So a rule of thumb in shining and hiding: good works that we are tempted to hide for fear of man’s disapproval are likely the ones we should let shine. Good works that we are tempted to do publicly for man’s approval are likely the ones to keep secret.

Our contemporary world continues to work towards dimming the lights of religious expression. Pope Francis, however, warns in Lumen Fidei that, as a result of the contemporary reduction of the Catholic faith to the private realm, the faith has dangerously receded from culture, to the point that we can characterise it as “a massive amnesia in our contemporary world” where “the question of God is no longer relevant.” (LF, No. 25) More than ever, our Holy Father is convinced that “there is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim.”  (LF, No. 4) So we live like Jesus, we fight the battles with darkness. We bring truth to the blind and ignorant. We bring hope to those burdened by sin. We bring acceptance to the forgotten and unloved. To those confused about life, we bring God’s word. To the sad, we bring joy. To the impatient, we bring a reason to be calm. Let your light shine!  Not that you enjoy the spotlight. No, shine so that Christ may be better known and God glorified.  

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